Tag Archives: interpersonal communication

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Tight Spaces

[The Interpersonal dynamics of Communication are always interesting, and never more so than when we are pushed into close proximity with others. Cramped conditions can be ad-hoc laboratories: chances to see how individuals cope with another’s intrusion into their intimate space.This piece from 2014 is a ‘close reading’ of these kinds of encounters, with an important lesson that usually follows] 

Life has a way of randomly throwing us together with complete strangers in tight spaces.  Trains, elevators and planes typically violate the two- to four-foot zone that the study of proxemics says Americans want to preserve for themselves.  How do we cope?

We’ll skip sitting in steerage on an airliner, where the experience is something to be endured, and where travelers are thankful to still have free use of the pressurized air.  But consider the ubiquitous elevator, and the mix-and-match experience of sharing a meal in a railroad dining car.

As little closets expected to hold 10 or 12 people, elevators represent the triumph of necessity over comfort. Walking up twelve flights of stairs is a good workout. But no one wants to arrive at their business destination looking like they just finished the New York Marathon. So in the cramped space of the little vertical room eyes are averted to the ceiling, the poster advertising the restaurant in the lobby, or to a middle distance that is supposed to relieve others of the need to respond. It actually becomes harder to remain completely disengaged when only one or two are on an elevator. But there are safe tropes for a brief conversation that can help pass the time.  Comments on the weather are usually safe, as are observations on how slow this particular version of the vertical room is. In a hotel, perhaps a timid query about where a co-passenger is from will work. But even that can tread near the borders of the acceptable. Not surprisingly, our comfort in these settings seems to be in direct proportion to the frequency of the experience. Living in the center of Chicago or New York, a person learns how to be a compatible stranger.

As the elevator went up the mood of the passengers inevitably went down.

A few years ago I was at a convention at a large urban hotel where the management thought it would be a good idea to include a small built-in television just above the elevator’s control panel. Strangers who stepped in had to be ready for more than a vertical ride. They were immediately thrust into the world of CNN, where a good day means covering a national or world crisis with live and often disturbing images of mayhem. On this occasion I recall a report focusing on community outrage over a police shooting. The story featured a home video of police beating and subduing two African American men.  Gunshots followed and one of the men died.

Endlessly looping the footage of the attacks over audio discussions of excessive force had the effect of throwing many convention-goers out of their celebratory mood and into the much harder world of a socially polarized nation. As the elevator went up the mood of the passengers inevitably went down.

Here’s the interesting thing. The collection of individuals in the elevator became common witnesses to an ugly incident.  And yet no one wanted to react; no one wanted to reveal themselves to strangers by overtly reacting to the report. Opinions remained too intimate to risk with this transitional group.  Even so, our daily lives are not unlike this transitional moment. Like the tiny space that shuttles between floors, the pervasiveness of our media constantly deliver us to social situations which are not stable for very long.  Media relentlessly push us into vastly different crises that are part of the human drama: some comforting and most disturbing.

Eating in an Amtrak dining car is as close as most of us will get to making contact with a random group of ordinary Americans.

Long-distance rail travel is another interesting case. The day of the long-distance passenger train has mostly passed in the United States.  Even so, some travelers and a handful of trains remain. By custom, a single passenger eating in the dining car of a train will be asked to join others to make a table of four. Amtrak doesn’t accommodate the shy who want to eat alone. Perhaps no other social routine is so likely to throw a person into the intimacy of a shared meal with total strangers. And yet the experience can be surprisingly refreshing.

If most of us live in a bubble of like-minded friends, the dining car is easily going to pierce it. On a recent trip that included lunch and diner I met a clearly well-heeled woman from Virginia horse country returning home after a speech to a woman’s group.  We sat across from a trucker from Elkhart Indiana who delivers buses all over the U.S. (and had to tell us about his $60,000-a-year salary).  At other meals I met two retired professors from Berkeley on their way to see family members in Minnesota, a grizzled Florida retiree returning from a football game in Nebraska, and a perfectly dressed older woman off to see friends in the District of Columbia.

The rules of the table were always clear: references to hometowns, the lateness of the train, and dispersed families are all fair game. Politics, religion and other “third rail” topics are not.  We also had the common experience of having hit a car just after midnight.  It had died and been hastily abandoned on the tracks.  So we compared notes on who had been able to sleep while fire crews pulled the impaled automobile off the front of the engine.

My experience is that Midwesterners sometimes go on for too long about the prospects of their city or college football teams. I usually return the favor by becoming loquacious about the surprising beauty of New Jersey. But there is a bigger lesson here. Spending time in these close quarters is usually reassuring.  If we allow it, even this chance encounter can remind us of our shared and simple decency.


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Photo Ops

The capacity to take endless numbers of pictures has outstripped most useful reasons for sharing them. 

When I was still a student, I spent part of one fall working for a candidate running for the Senate from Pennsylvania.  If our team was not yet known as one of the gangs that couldn’t shoot straight, we’d soon make a claim for the title.  One event we planned was a simple ‘walkabout’ in downtown Pittsburgh. It’s a conventional campaign move to notify the press and promise them pictures of your guy mixing it up with voters.  But there was a problem with this particular event because we planned it for a Sunday.  That was mistake number one, since the Golden Triangle on weekends was then a ghost town.  Office workers were clearly restored to the suburbs by the end of the of the workweek on Friday.  Pittsburgh was not quite the active American city that it is now.

Nonetheless, we did find some people for the candidate to meet. And without a second thought we moved in to introduce him, even though the few persons around were surprisingly reticent to be photographed.  We had obviously missed the source of their reluctance, which was directly above our heads in the form of a theater marquee. Mistake number two: we were standing in front of a porn theater.  Clearly a photo of the candidate under neon ablaze with a lot of X’s was not a winning political move.  But give these folks staggering out of the theater some credit; they seemed to be as faithful in their Sunday morning attendance as the Presbyterians pouring out of their church down the street.

For this and many other reasons our guy lost, and I returned to the  easier world of teaching and writing about politics.


His vacation-by-proxy has triggered your downward slide toward semi-consciousness.

The phrase “photo op” may have been a common idea then.  But that usage is now too narrow.  Today many of us are in the business of looking for visual opportunities to capture on our phones. That’s bad enough for the rest of us that have to look them, but made even worse by the fact that there is no longer a financial penalty for being a kind of serial shooter.  There is almost no cost associated with producing images on digital media.

So now some of our encounters with friends are. . . how can I put this? . .  photographically impaired.  Instead of a routine conversation, there is too often a moment when the friend reaches into a pocket to pull out a phone. The heart sinks as he thumbs his way to a photo library that is revealed to be indecently large.  How bad can it be?  Perhaps we should be thankful he hasn’t downloaded all of Gone With the Wind.  More likely, the scrolling images remind him of other recent high points he is only too happy to find on his small screen.  Who wouldn’t  want to share the joy of a hummingbird at 40 yards? You feign interest. But he has a lot of pictures.  And if he’s been traveling, he will probably show signs of anticipation at the opportunity to relive his entire vacation. The extended narrative that can come with even the most homely shot can roll out like a kite string. And as all of this happens, his sidewalk reverie is becoming your nightmare. His vacation-by-proxy has triggered your downward slide toward semi-consciousness.

In the analog era it was the case that a long-lost friend might have had a few pictures in their wallet or purse.  If they had kids, they were expected to trot out one per child, even though you could predict that the youngest would always look like Winston Churchill.  You dutifully professed awe at their perfect beauty, and it was quickly over. The few pictures went back in the wallet and a conversation could then continue.

But now many of us think of ourselves as Ansel Adams. The capacity to take pictures has outstripped any functional reasons to share large quantities of them.  A “conversation” built around one’s own snapshots is actually a monologue. And it’s another reason to consider disarming visitors right at the front door. There has to be a nice way to say that there will be no photo ops during their visit. Allow them in, but be sure their miserable tiny screens have been stored out of reach.